Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul is trying to position himself as a one-man counterweight to Capitol Hill’s neoconservatives, a wing of the Republican party that has driven the GOP’s foreign policy agenda for the past decade.
In what he billed as a “major foreign policy speech” Tuesday at the conservative Heritage Foundation, Paul laid out an alternate vision for the role America should play on the global stage, which he said represents a realist — as opposed to neoconservative or isolationist — approach.
A number of the positions Paul outlined sounded strikingly similar to those embraced by progressive Democrats — and promise clashes with leading voices on foreign policy in his own party such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Like Paul, McCain joined the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the new Congress.
Paul’s remarks added up to a more nuanced, less dogmatic take on foreign affairs than what he advocated during his first two years in the Senate.
The freshman senator’s often quixotic campaigns to cut or eliminate U.S. foreign aid in the 112th Congress earned him a reputation as an opponent of international engagement. Paul, who was elected in 2010 with the strong backing of the tea party movement, sought to quickly erase that impression on Tuesday. And in the process he continued to position himself for a possible 2016 presidential run.
Presenting what he styled as moderate approach to international affairs, Paul argued that “there is room for a foreign policy that strikes a balance” between the extremes of “a foreign policy that is everything to everyone, that is everywhere all the time” and one “that is nowhere any of the time.” That, he said, is similar to the middle ground U.S. leaders sought between appeasement and World War III during the Cold War.
Invoking both storied diplomat George F. Kennan and iconic Republican President Ronald Reagan, Paul made an argument for a U.S. foreign policy “that is not rash or reckless” but rather “reluctant, restrained by constitutional checks and balances.”
Reagan, he recalled, “did not shy away from labeling the Soviet Union as an evil empire, but he also sat down with [Soviet head of state Mikhail] Gorbachev and negotiated meaningful reductions in nuclear weapons.”
Such a foreign policy “recognizes the danger of radical Islam,” which Paul portrayed as communism’s modern-day equivalent, “but also the inherent weakness of radical Islam.”
It is, he continued, “a foreign policy that recognizes the danger of bombing countries on the pretext of what they might someday do,” and one that “understands the distinction between vital and peripheral interests.”
That wasn’t the only swing Paul took at the sort of international interventions fellow Republican politicians have pursued in recent years.
“When candidate John McCain argued in 2007 that we should remain in Iraq for 100 years, I blanched, and I wondered what the unintended consequences of prolonged occupation would be,” he said early on his remarks.
He also knocked a nonbinding resolution the Senate passed by a vote of 90-1 last year, declaring it is not U.S. policy to contain a nuclear Iran. Paul was the lone nay vote.
“No one, including myself, wants to see a nuclear Iran. Iran does need to know that all options are on the table. But we should not preemptively announce that diplomacy or containment will never be an option,” Paul said.
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